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Coco peat, corruption and pie crust

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Monday 31st July, 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron, who was here briefly, a few days ago, has reportedly pledged his country’s support for Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring process. Other creditor nations, too, have offered to help this country come out of the present economic crisis. Their assistance is to be greatly appreciated. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken upon himself the thankless task of reviving the economy.

He has dared to make some unpopular decisions and managed to bring about some tangible results with the help of the officials of the Finance Ministry and the Central Bank. But all their efforts will be in vain unless the country succeeds in building its forex reserves fast. The need for foreign direct investment cannot be overstated. This ambitious goal, however, will remain unattainable unless urgent action is taken to restore investor confidence by eliminating waste and corruption.

One of the reasons why Sri Lanka has failed to attract sufficient foreign investment all these years has become clear once again. The government of Saudi Arabia has complained to Sri Lanka that a high-ranking official of the Coconut Development Authority (CDA) tried to exert undue influence on a group of Saudi state officials who were here on a visit to inspect the process of producing coco peat exported for a project in that country. It is believed that Sri Lanka will be able to earn billions of dollars in several years by exporting coco peat to Saudi Arabia.

Sri Lanka has tendered an apology to the Saudi Arabian government for what the CDA official did. In any other country, such officials would have been interdicted immediately, complaints against them probed expeditiously and punitive action taken against them in case of charges against them being proved. But this is a land like no other for crooks of all sorts. The entire system is geared to serve the interests of the corrupt.

Minister of Plantations Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, under whose purview the CDA comes, should be questioned in Parliament on the coco peat controversy and asked to take action against the official concerned.

Corruption is driving foreign investors away while Sri Lanka is struggling to secure an IMF bailout worth about USD 2.9 billion. Coco peat exports to Saudi Arabia will help bring in several times this amount in a few years, according to media reports. Corrupt officials and politicians will have to be kept at bay if this project is not to be derailed.

Japan, known for its antipathy towards corruption, refuses to have any dealings with the corrupt, but it has proved that it is a true friend of Sri Lanka by continuing to grant aid though a complaint of bribery made by one of its senior diplomats against a Cabinet minister here has gone uninvestigated. Last year, the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva step down pending an inquiry into a Japanese diplomat’s complaint that the latter had solicited a backhander from a Japanese company.

But following the ouster of President Rajapaksa, his successor Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a committee to probe the complaint, and it cleared Minister de Silva of all charges. Nobody expected it to do otherwise, given its composition. It was like the committee appointed to probe the Treasury bond scams in 2015. The committee members were lawyers loyal to the UNP, and they said there had been no wrongdoing on the part of the then Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran.

Saudi Arabia’s complaint against the CDA official has come close on the heels of the ratification by the Sri Lankan Parliament of a much-advertised Anti-Corruption Bill. Interestingly, all crooks backed it, enabling its passage without division.

The anti-terror laws passed at the behest of the IMF are like pie crust; they have been made to be broken. Politicians in power and top bureaucrats know they are too big to be caught thanks to the prevailing culture of impunity.

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